Friday 28 August 2015

Improved Pubs: Art Deco and Tudor Beams

I'm glad to see that English Heritage has just listed 20 pubs from the interwar period. Products of the 'improved pub' movement that aimed to shake off the Victorian image of pubs as unsavoury drinking dens, these interwar establishments were intended to be wholesome and cheering features of the community, aimed at attracting respectable family men, their wives and even families. They are, most conspicuously, magnificent flights of fantasy - mock-Tudor, mock-baronial, mock-Georgian, mock-rustic, mock-sophisticated - and in this they are very much in keeping with the spirit of the times, and the national character.
 The bald facts of history present the period following the Wall Street Crash as one of prolonged depression, unemployment, unrest and displacement - and yet its built heritage has come down to us as cheery, wholesome, and irremediably fantastic. As well as these fantasy pubs, there are fantasy factories and office buildings, whimsically pretending to be something else - and, above all, that vast acreage covered by mock-Tudor speculative housing, with its streets and avenues and crescents and 'drives', all lined with cosy three-bedroom semis clad in nailed-on 'half-timbering', where the Englishman could believe his (rented) family home was not only his castle but also his country cottage, complete with cottage garden. Domestic fantasy on this scale is, I think, a uniquely English phenomenon, a product of that cheerfully fantastic vein in the English character that is explored so brilliantly by Dickens and, after him, V.S. Pritchett. The pity is that so many of those jolly mock-Tudor semis have now been denatured by replacement windows and roofs and satellite dishes and, above all, by the removal of their front gardens to make parking space for the all-conquering car, whose intrusive presence everywhere has all but put paid to those interwar dreams of rus in urbe.
 But now I'm off to the pub - cheers!


  1. I never understood why Rumpole didn't include the pub with Westminster, trial by jury and the British Breakfast as the great gifts of the English to humanity, but then, uncharacteristically, he did his drinking in continent-inspired wine bars. However, Nige, I have to wonder whether, as with football and cricket, your grateful recipients have surpassed you. Here in Canada, the very word was unknown until the early seventies. Before then, drinking was restricted largely to hotel bars and men-only beer parlours offering cheap draft and pickled eggs (I miss them horribly), both windowless lest children be corrupted and delicate old ladies scandalized. When I visited a friend at Oxford in the spring of 1970, we took our pints outside into the pub garden and I recall instinctively fearing the wrath of a policeman or perhaps even the Deity.

    Now we have adopted the word and the land is full of convivial pubs modeled to some degree on your interwar version. But many modern popular English novels I read these days depict your pubs as noisy, sometimes menacing, places with flinty staff, awful piped-in music and yobs playing cacophonous casino machines. None of that over here, although the large ( but generally soundless) TV sports screen has become ubiquitous. Please assure me that is all just literary license.

  2. Ah Peter, there are indeed pubs as hellish as that over here, and rather a lot of them - indeed it seemed at one time that they would take over (see Kingsley Amis On Drink). However, there has always been a huge range of pub types in England, including many quiet and friendly - or at least cosy - establishments, especially out of town, and even some notably 'unimproved' pubs where the ale is drawn in jugs. And in recent years there has been a big swing in fashion away from noise and 'vertical drinking' mayhem and towards pubs that feel more like restaurants. Some of these also feel dead and bogus, and indeed are essentially faked up - but they are certainly an improvement on the noisy hellhole model. Ten years ago, in my neck of the suburban woods, it looked as if all the pubs were turning into the kind of places no civilised person would wish to drink in - and yet, since then, three have been transformed into quiet and agreeable venues, and two pubs that had closed down have been reopened in vastly improved form. One of these was actually bought up by its loyal customers and reopened as what is pretty much the perfect pub - no TV, no music, no games machines, just a pleasant place to meet friends, chat and enjoy good draught beers. Alas, it's become a victim of its own success - so popular that you're now lucky to get a seat and the drinkers are four deep at the bar. I reckon they could open half a dozen more like that and they'd all do good business - they represent the kind of pub that most people (apart from the young and the yobbish) want. Perhaps if more pubs had stayed close to that model (and the pub companies hadn't been so rapacious) there wouldn't have been such a wave of pub closures all over the land.